After Delays, Digital Television Conversion is Complete
Analysts examine the road to digital television conversion and assess the successes and drawbacks involved in the change.
JUDY WOODRUFF: After delays and problems, the digital
television conversion will soon be complete. Jeffrey Brown has our "Media
MAN: You have this television right here?
Yes, it's over there.
JEFFREY BROWN: As the final days of analog television
approached, Rebecca Francis got some much-needed help from AmeriCorps
volunteers to make sure she wouldn't be left behind.
WOMAN: I am getting a much
JEFFREY BROWN: The nation's conversion to digital TV will be
complete by 12:01 tomorrow morning. At a recent press conference, FCC
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was relieved the end was in sight.
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN, commissioner, Federal Communications
Commission: If the DTV transition were a NASCAR race, six months ago, we were
lagging behind, hitting walls, crashing in burning. Since then, we have got a
pit stop, a refueling from the administration and Congress. We have got a new
driver, rebuilt the engine, and empowered the pit crew. Today, we're zooming
along and about to see the checkered flag.
JEFFREY BROWN: The promise of the move to digital -- which
began in the 1980s -- was enhanced images and sound and the ability for TV
stations to offer more channels with the kind of local and niche content often
missing from public airwaves. In addition, the transition was intended to clear
airwaves for emergency communications services and other new communications,
like mobile Internet services. But there were big challenges. TV stations had
to convert their equipment. Many have done so well in advance of tonight's
deadline. Consumers had three options: Use a digital converter box to get a
signal on their older analog sets, subscribe to cable or satellite TV, or buy a
new set with digital tuners built in.
ANNOUNCER: If you watch antenna TV, get a new digital set or
a converter box, like this.
JEFFREY BROWN: After a public education campaign by
government and others and a program to issue coupons for converter boxes, most
Americans made the switch. But, according to Nielsen, 2.8 million aren't ready.
Earlier this week at the White House, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke raised concerns.
GARY LOCKE, Commerce secretary: We want to make sure that
families are able to not only receive their favorite programming, but, more
importantly, to receive news broadcasts of emergency alerts, impending storms,
and any other emergency situation within their community. It's very important
that communities and people throughout our nation have the information they
need to respond in times of emergencies.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even today, staffers at the Federal
Communications Commission's Washington
command center continued to help people with last-minute concerns. The
conversion was originally set for February, but problems with the government's
plan and consumer confusion forced officials to push it back. This time, they
say, it's for real and those without the proper equipment will see their
favorite channel turn an empty blue.
The road to digital
JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at all this now with Reed Hundt,
chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the mid-1990s, and
Jonathan Collegio, vice president of digital transition for the National
Association of Broadcasters. Welcome to both of you.
Jonathan Collegio, what do we know about the people who have
not may the conversion yet? Who are they? Where are they? How worried are we?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO, vice president, digital transition,
National Association of Broadcasters: As of last Friday, about 1.7 million
television viewers had not taken any action toward the digital television
transition. We expect that many of those folks would have taken action in the
last week. However, we know that a good proportion of them are very, very
resistant to taking the action. Some of the folks may just choose to do without
television for a while. So, we will see what happens. So far, television
stations across the country have been receiving between about 100 and 125
telephone calls, which is right about what our expectations have been.
JEFFREY BROWN: And every time we look at this, we get people
writing into us afterwards, complaining, saying that they have made the
conversion, but the signal is no better than it was before. What is the
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Well, what we have seen in our surveys is
that, actually, 75 percent of viewers who have made the transition report
better pictures, more reception, actually being able to get more channels. I
think that what -- what you are seeing is probably some of the folks on the
fringes who are losing reception are a little bit angrier. And those are the
folks who are a little more prone to complain.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, Reed Hundt, I want to look at
some larger context here, because, as I recall, this all started as -- out of a
fear of Japanese competition in the '80s, correct? What was the -- what was the
big idea? And what has been accomplished?
REED HUNDT, former chairman, Federal Communications
Commission: Well, I think, to be honest, very, very little has been
accomplished. And the big idea is an idea that long ago evaporated. The
original notion 20 years ago is that America would have a TV
manufacturing industry that would be able to be geared up to deliver a new
signal over the air. Before the broadcast surge really made much progress with
that, that industry moved overseas. Now China is the number-one center for
manufacture of TVs in the world. And, over the years since then, the broadcast
industry has fought to postpone and postpone and postpone this conversion. And
now that it's actually happening, 98 percent of Americans won't even notice,
because they are cable subscribers or satellite subscribers or Internet users.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what was -- what was this all about?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Twenty million households at the
beginning of the transition, when we started keeping track in 2006, on our way
to the transition in February -- what was February 17, 2009, had to make the
upgrade. What we know is that most people that are making the transition are
getting a lot of benefits from this. They are getting crystal-clear pictures
and sound that you can't get in analog, more television channels through
multicasting, as well as free high-definition broadcasts in every single market
in the country. Now, that didn't exist 10 years ago. That didn't really even
exist five years ago. And it is a benefit that folks can enjoy anywhere for
free. All they need is an antenna and an HD television set. So, there are a lot
of benefits for viewers out there. And I think that you may see, with the
economy the way it is, some shift back to over-the-air, instead of those cable
and satellite bills.
'A 20th century story'
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you don't deny most of that, I guess.
But is the issue -- I mean, the interesting thing, I guess, when I think back
to these discussions, is that the TV was going to become, like, the central
technological place in our lives, right? Is that what you are saying didn't
REED HUNDT: Over-the-air broadcast was the most important
medium in the world, and certainly in the United States for the last half of
the 20th century. But it's definitely a 20th century story, and not a 21st
century story. The broadcast industry, for years, knew that it had to evolve
its business model. But it's pretty analogous to General Motors or some of the
other sad stories we see, where there was postponement after postponement after
postponement sought by the people in the industry. And the result is that the
value proposition, the center of gravity for the media switched to the
Internet, switched to mobile devices. People now get all the same information
on a mobile device that they could have formally gotten on broadcast TV. And
then they can Twitter on it as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, technology did a kind of end run, you are
suggesting, around the television set that we're all familiar with?
REED HUNDT: Technology just kept moving on, while the
lobbying battle got stuck in a rut for 20 years. And now we're having a
transition from something to nothing that really matters.
The future of the TV set
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I assume you want to push back on this.
I mean, what -- what do you see? What is the role of the television set? I know
we sit down and watch television programs, but what is the television set in
our lives today, or looking forward, now that we have made this conversion?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: What I would hate to do is make a
prediction of what the technology is going to look like 20 years ago, because a
lot of folks, back in the '80s, thought that they knew what the future was
going to look like, and they got it wrong. What we know now is that there's a
huge movement, like he said, toward handheld devices. In Washington, D.C.,
this summer, seven television stations are actually going to begin an
experiment on mobile broadcast television on handheld devices. This is a huge
step forward. It's going to be available for consumers in the -- in the first
quarter of 2010. But there's definitely this push toward -- toward mobile
handheld devices, getting -- being able to get your local news as you are going
home from work, that type of thing. There's a lot of -- there -- there are a
lot of opportunities there. I just wouldn't want to try to predict what the --
you know, what technology is going to look like in 2029.
JEFFREY BROWN: But just -- excuse me -- just to be clear, so
that those handhelds, the connection to the set in our homes is what?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Oh, it's still there. I mean, we know
that in the last -- 112 (sic) digital television sets have been sold, according
to the Consumer Electronics Association, more than half of those in the last
two years. So, folks still place a very, very high importance on their -- on their
television in their homes. But what we will start seeing are mobile devices
like this, where you are actually able to pick up local broadcasts on a mobile
handheld device. If it's popular in Washington,
D.C., you could see them in cell
phones, you could see them in iPods, and all kinds of other devices as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have watched the policy and other
debates for years now. What kind of future do you see? What is the next step
for the television set and this kind of technology?
REED HUNDT: We're in complete agreement. A cool thing is to
have over-the-air broadcasts go to cell phones. More chips have been sold in China
for the receipt of over-the-air broadcasts on cell phones than the total number
of iPhones sold in the world. But, again, my only point is, that's already
happened in China.
And, here in the United
States, this is a prototype that we're
looking at today. We need to get our industries in every sector on the cutting
edge of technology change. And, frankly, this delay, delay, delayed transition
from analog TV is a sad story in American policy, not a great story.
Missing the deadline
JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime -- I want to come back to the
deadline here, before we go -- people who missed this deadline, they're not
done forever, right? I mean, they can still go get their converter box? What --
what do people do if they are suddenly watching us, and afraid they won't have
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Yes, a lot of folks...
JEFFREY BROWN: Or Monday, since we're not on tomorrow.
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: That's true. A lot of folks are going to
figure out that they didn't make the upgrade. And they are going to go to their
consumer electronics retailer tomorrow, make the upgrade. One thing that is
going to happen today is, a lot of folks -- because not all the television
stations are going digital at the same times, folks are going to have to
re-scan their equipment more than once in order to continue getting all the
channels out there. We tend to think that that is the number-one reason for
these calls that the television stations and that the FCC call center are
JEFFREY BROWN: Re-scan means?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Re-scan going to your -- the menu option
on your converter box or your television set, doing an autoscan to make sure
that, if the television channel number changed, you would still be able to pick
JEFFREY BROWN: And those with their antennas might be doing
some adjusting, too?
JONATHAN COLLEGIO: That's the case, too. I mean, folks that
live on the -- on kind of the fringe areas of a designated market area may see
some change. Some folks may have to go from indoor antennas to outdoor
antennas. But I will tell you what. I mean, when I went from analog to digital
at my house in Arlington, Virginia, I literally quintupled the number of free
channels that I was able to receive. And we're seeing that in the data. We're
seeing that in the survey, with three out of four people saying that they are
getting better reception and more channels.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will
leave it there. Jonathan Collegio and Reed Hundt, thank you, both, very much.